The light series: The Process


How I went from a few photos to two final products through trial, error and the forces of nature 

Firstly, I will say, this "Light Series," as I will call it, is a very small series. In fact, it really is only two paintings. But what was intended as a single painting, through a strange journey, resulted in two separate "brother" paintings. The first step of this whole thing was a simple photo shoot in which to get reference photos for what I expected to be a single painting. My buddy Jordan, an artist who works in the studio next to mine, was obliging enough to let me interrupt his work to pose for these photos. I had the idea in my head that I wanted this next piece of mine to be an unfolding of emotions; to show a short story of sorts. Like a flip book where each page has a different image, and when you flip through, the images come alive with movement--except mine would be all lined up next to each other and the movement would be left up to the eyes. Not unlike what I had already done with a different painting. Here's a bit of what came out of that...

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After this very informal shoot, I head back inside the studio and take a look at what I have to work with. I select three different photos to work from that I think I can use to create a narrative. I take my 22"x 30" warm-pressed watercolor paper and lightly sketch the three separate images, painstakingly positioning and overlapping them on the paper so that I can see a series of movement. Then I start painting. At a certain point, when the faces are done, and before certain decisions have to be made that could either make or break this project, I take a pause and ask Jordan pose with this larger-than-life representation. You know, just in case I ruin it after this point, I would like to have some documentation of what it looked like at this stage when I was still pleased with it. In case you are unfamiliar, watercolor has been called very unforgiving. Once the paint is on the paper, there's really no going back. It took about a week of work to reach this point. 

Back inside the studio there are decisions to be made. I'm way past the point of knowing what story I want to tell. The phrase "in the light of day" came to mind when I first took a look at the photos and kept repeating in my head during that first week of painting. Going from left to right of these images, he begins in the light. Confronted with it, even. But its too much. He's got something going on inside that he doesn't want to have illuminated. So he retreats back to the darkness. But how do I show that story through these images? Or more specifically at this point, how am I going to overlap these three scenes to make one cohesive image? I want movement. I want progression. I want the transition from light to dark to be evident.


I wish I could say that I had a clear direction of how I was going to accomplish my goals here, but honestly, I had only a vague idea that I just sort of ran with; hoping for the best.

The arm is finished. Shirts are in place. There is evident overlapping. But it's still not done. The story isn't clear enough. The dark isn't dark enough. (And I've made the darkness liquid? Why?! It was an impulse whim and now I'm stuck with it. How do I make this work?) 

Then I get a phone call from my dad. We get to talking about what I've been up to and I end up emailing him a photo of the painting, hoping he can give me some advise. A reply comes in my inbox: "Have you thought about somehow merging the figure on the right with the darkness?...Making some parts of him BE the darkness!" Alright, be the darkness...and with that I get back to it. The next day I send dad an update with the caption: "Still not sure. Too much? Not enough?"

The model posing with his painting

That pretty much sums up how lost I was at that point. But obviously I was determined to make this thing work. So I swung for the fences (once the paint is on the paper there's no going back, so go big or go home, right?). And it was a big swing...and a miss. Ok, look, I can accept that its not the worse thing in the world. Definitely not the worse thing I've ever done. BUT, its not what it could have been. And maybe its best to leave it at that.

Time to cut my losses. Move on. Start something new.  I'm not ready to just trash the whole project. I like those photos, I would like to make a painting I actually LIKE from them. Something a bit more hopeful this time? So back to the drawing board...


(The Final Product)

Watercolor on paper


Day 1 of trying to figure out the Yupo.

It was so counterintuitive that for days I would work and rework areas, forgetting that once I liked something, I couldn't touch it again or I would lose it. And there was no touching up a small part, once a small part of an area gets wet, the whole are needs to be reworked in order for it to flow together. I literally felt like I was going crazy working on this thing. 

See the white areas? That's wet paint. Remember in Jurrasic Park when Jeff Goldblum explains Chaos Theory? Yeah, it was like that.

New day. New week, even (going into the third consecutave week of this project). Frustrated and feeling a bit betrayed by my watercolors, I decided to go in a very different direction: Yupo. "Waterproof, tree-free, synthetic paper." That's it's official description. The key word here: waterproof. I'd met an artist in Virginia a couple months before who'd recommended it. I was pleased to find a giant sheet at my local art supply store. And it'd been sitting in the studio waiting for me to gather enough of something to give it a whirl. Now seemed like the time.

A little bit of background: watercolor is thinned by adding water to it. The more water the more fluid and the more transparent it becomes. When it is applied to paper, it's absorbed into the paper, then dries. Remember that watercolor set you had as a kid? Yeah, just like that. But working with Yupo isn't like that. It's waterproof, which means the watercolor isn't absorbed into it, it sits on top of it. The pigment sort of just swirls around the water until it's evaporated and what's left is the color sitting on top, where it happened to be when the water finally dries. Good news: if you don't like the way it turned out, just wipe it off and start over. Tabula rasa.  

As a watercolorist who is very accustomed to having my paint pretty much go where I want it (and stay there permanently) there was a major learning curve with this thing. Normal watercolor is all about layers. Start with a light wash: very transparent. Hardly even there. Then build up little by little to add detail. But with the Yupo, if I went over a section I've already worked on, the second I touch it with a wet paintbrush, the pigment that had already been put down gets picked back up again or starts swirling around the now wet paper. 

A few days in and I feel like I'm finally getting the hang of it. It's finally coming together. Then one morning I come in the studio, flip on the lights and walk over the my table where I've left the painting to dry overnight. And I am shocked by what I find. There is no simpler way to explain what happened than this: something had eaten my painting. The whole thing is incredibly mysterious and I still can't really explain what happened. But see those white squigglies over there, they weren't there the night before. According to Google, watercolor paint is made with sugar or honey. And that must have attracted something, because where the most concentrated (darkest) areas of paint had been, there were now tracks of the white paper underneath. Honestly, I don't want to know who was culpable. Sitting at my table working on the painting afterward, I felt violated just imagining what could have also been there. 

After trying for a day to fix it to no avail, I decided to just start over. 

After what you can see in the video, more water was added. Some actual wiping, as well. Another week's work of painting went into it. At the end of each work day, I would take the painting home and then back to the studio the next day, which resulted in a couple of casualties. But I wasn't about to have it offered up as dinner again (my guess is that whatever feasted on the painting originally ate itself to death, because it never showed up again).

I can say now that in the end whatever decided to eat away my painting did me a favor. The final product turned out much better than what I had going on before. In hindsight, I can see what I thought was ok really wasn't, I would have been less likely to bite the bullet and start over if something drastic hadn't forced me. 

Will Be brought to the Light

(The Final Product)

Watercolor on Yupo paper



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Greenville, SC  |  |  @hfraccalvieri